W'ville Valley Elementary shares secrets of NECAP success


March 02, 2011
WATERVILLE VALLEY — At a time when many schools throughout New Hampshire are struggling to meet their expected scores on the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) tests administered to students each fall and spring, Waterville Valley Elementary School is one of the few with a reason to celebrate.

On the statewide rankings recently released by the Department of Education, based on the results from the fall 2010 exams, Waterville Valley placed first in Reading and fifth in Math — an achievement that Principal Gail Hannigan says did not come easy.

"We definitely have become better," Hannigan said during an interview last week, explaining that getting to a place where 71 percent of the school's population scored within the Proficient with Distinction category in Math entailed a great deal of effort on the part of teachers, administrators, and most importantly, the students themselves.

When the NECAP exams were first introduced as the state's preferred method of assessment under the No Child Left Behind Act, Hannigan said, Waterville Valley struggled to make the grade in Math, due largely to the way in which the curriculum was structured, with each of the school's teachers being asked to provide Math instruction to a "multi-age" group comprised of three different grade levels in just 45 minutes.

With help from experts at Plymouth State University, Hannigan and her staff re-evaluated the way they were teaching Math, and re-structured the curriculum in such a way as to give teachers an hour and a half to offer Math instruction to two different grade levels —45 minutes per grade.

Not all teachers were using the same Math curriculum, either, Hannigan said — a situation that was remedied by the introduction of Everyday Math as the new, standardized curriculum.

Developed by the University of Chicago School Mathematics program, Everyday Math is a comprehensive pre-K through sixth grade curriculum distinguished by its emphasis on real-world application of math skills; a balance between group and individual instruction; partnership between schools and parents; communication; and use of technology.

Along with the introduction of Everyday Math, Hannigan said, the school also created a new Homework Club exclusively for math that has provided a boost to many students.

Teachers, she said, were also asked to start incorporating more vocabulary into their Math lessons — a strategy designed to reach out to Language Arts students who might otherwise find it hard to invest themselves in the idea of working with numbers.

The Math Facts in a Flash program created by Renaissance Learning has also been implemented at Waterville Valley, enabling students to take practice CD's home with them or use them during Homework Club.

"That's made a big difference, too," Hannigan said.

The key to the school's success in Reading, she explained, is the amount of assessment involved.

Students, she said, are tested in reading no less than three times a year — in September, January, and June. The data from those assessments is then examined by the school's Literacy Team, which decides what intervention might have to be done with students who are falling behind.

In addition to the reading they do during the school day, Hannigan said, students are asked to read for 30 minutes every night, and are required to hand in logs documenting the amount of time they spend reading at home.

Another key factor in the school's success, she said, is the fact that all subjects — Reading, Math, and Science — are taught to each student at his or her grade level.

For example, she explained, if a fourth grader new to the district were found to be struggling in Reading, they would be shifted down to a third grade Reading class and singled out for help in getting where they need to be.

Conversely, she added, students who excel in a particular subject are given an opportunity to advance to the next grade level, preventing boredom or frustration from setting in.

"I think we're unique in that way," Hannigan said. "If they have weaknesses, we can remediate that within the grade."

Designing a testing schedule that doesn't upset the normal flow of things can also be a major factor when it comes to important tests like the NECAPs, she said, explaining that students at Waterville Valley are always tested mid-week — never on Mondays or Fridays — and that the Reading and Math exams are scheduled in three-day blocks.

The students, she added, are also offered incentives, such as ice cream parties or swimming days at the Recreation Department, if they perform well on the exams, and are prepared for the format of the tests during the first few weeks of the school year.

Once the curriculum changes and new programs aimed at improving NECAP scores were implemented, Hannigan said, the school's staff saw an "immediate difference" in students' performance, with nearly the entire population scoring in the Proficient or Proficient with Distinction categories for the past few years.

The group of students taking the exams changes from year to year, she added, proving that "it's not just about the kids; it's about the school."

"It's nice to be able to deliver the test scores," Hannigan said, adding that the students are "very proud of their work."

The community's response to the news has also been "very nice," she said, recalling the applause she received from the audience at a recent budget hearing.

One local community member particularly pleased with the school's performance is Lynn, a parent who stopped by the school's main office to pick up her daughter during last week's interview.

Lynn said she and her family moved to the area from Michigan after learning of Waterville Valley Elementary's reputation.

Faced with a choice of several different schools, she said, "this is where we came."

That decision turned out to be the "best fit" for her daughter, whose self confidence, she added, has improved drastically thanks to the encouragement and support she found here.

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